As far as we know, man is the only animal capable of feeling guilt. However, that guilt, that weight, is not only there because we did something wrong or committed a crime. Sometimes, many times, that guilt, that weight, is not associated with any concrete action, but only with existence itself. And that is precisely why it is so hard to ignore.
“There’s a problem with your passport.” The phrase I was told by an airport worker in Newark, New York, around 2013. In a continuous act, my body felt such an adrenaline discharge that, to this day I have no idea how I managed to stay on my feet. The man, who was seating inside his little cabinet, as so many others were in that internationally known line called “Passport Control”, went from pleasant to rude in less than a second. He stood up, stepped out of his little ticket window, and, holding my passport in his hand, directed me to this big room that oddly resembled a financial department. “Wait here.” There, in the midst of that heavy and quiet ambiance, there must have been around a dozen people, apparently tourists, just like me, waiting for “something”, but whose permanency didn’t go beyond the five minutes; besides them, the only other individuals there were police officers, that treated each “case” behind a counter that my memory tells me was made of wood. As soon as I heard my name, I knew I was in trouble. The first question the lady officer asked me, “What are you doing here?” was glued to her next, “Why have you been to the United States this often?”, which ended up mixing with the third, “Can you justify your presence when you came here in April [it was the end of July]?” and with dozens of others, many times repeated ones mixed with trick questions to try and catch me on a mishap. “I came to visit my boyfriend, who is American.” I repeated what I had already said before, on the apparently pacific area of the “Passport Control.” I told her the truth – after that, I started thinking that if I had just said “I’m on vacation” I probably wouldn’t have had half the troubles.
For more than an hour, I was forced to tell her, word by word, how we had met, where I had stayed before in the US (“Are you sure you lived in West Hollywood? It seemed like you said something else earlier…”), what were my “real intentions with that trip” – the way she saw it, it would be getting married for money, of course, since we couldn’t simply be in love, trying to get a job or some other way of staying in the country illegally – what I did professionally, how much money I had in my bank account, and, alas, when none of that convinced her, I was forced to hand her my phone, give her my pin code, and let her do whatever she pleased with it. Afterward, when talking to a lawyer, I was told that if I had not done that I would have been sent right back to Portugal. She called my boyfriend, who confirmed everything I blabbed out, despite being in between a state of total panic and disbelief – I still don’t know how I didn’t burst out crying, such was the psychological pressure to trick me into contradicting myself – and she gave my passport back, not before telling me that I “better not try anything while around there.” I recall the moment I was sent back into the fuss of the airport as if it were yesterday: the bumps into people, the noise, the running around, what before was a dread now was a synonym of freedom. I was shaking like a leaf, doubting everything about myself and my story, all I wanted was to go home and give up on the whole thing. I could feel the security cameras on me, sensed the coconspirator eyes of security guards, as if they knew my secret (!), I doubted my ability to reach the connecting flight to Chicago, perhaps they would stumble upon me again, a 30 something completely ordinary woman, wearing a baby blue blazer, white tee and black jeans – I remember how that baby blue blazer made me feel even more ridiculous, my figure was so innocuous, so by the book, that accusing me of whatever was like being inside a dystopic movie. When I finally sat down on the plane taking me to my final destination, I was filled with a huge sentiment of guilt. But of what, exactly?
That was the question I asked Bernardo Coelho, sociologist, investigator and college professor. “In more abstract dimension, we can perceive prohibitions as symbolic and ideological social structures. They are social and historical constructions that cause the constraint of the capacity to act or the limitation of the action field of possibilities of individuals.” In other words, what someone, or some entity, decides as right or wrong, what is allowed or forbidden, is internalized by us, citizens, in a natural and implicit way, without even noticing it. Then, that set of rules “are part of a matrix, let’s call it, or a grid, that we, as individuals, have, to evaluate ourselves, the contexts to the interactions we take part of, and to realize what the real possibilities of our actions and interactions actually are. They are internalized in us, they are perceived socially, through our personal experiences and the transmission or socialization of what we can and cannot do, and, in a way, format that matrix upon which we perceive our life and set our life goals. Indeed, our life projects are not alienated, let’s say, to the set of prohibitions in place, to the limitations of our actions, the symbolical and ideological limits that might exist to the fulfillment of those same projects.” And he exemplifies: “Prohibitions as symbolic and ideological structures can come in many shapes and sizes. They might come from a juridical and normative nature, for example laws that are clear ways of forbidding, of creating verbalize restrictions, but there are also other ways, that make up vaster cultural and social narratives. […] These prohibitions are internalized by us, individuals – in a subconscious way because they’re tacit – within those same evaluation and analysis charts of our lives. They only become evident when we’re in a context of interaction, when we’re in a particular context of our actions where we are confronted with the existence of prohibitions, of impossibilities to what we can do. It’s in a specific, objective and interactive context and moment that we realize we are limited by a set of constraints and prohibitions. But it’s only in that moment, when we are actually doing something, that those prohibitions resurface, whether they are legal, tacit and cultural, it is only within an interaction that they become absolutely obvious and absolutely restrictive of what we are going to say or do.” That is why, on that day, I felt guilty. Because my matric was formatted to feel guilt in situations of confrontation with authority figures. Even if I had done nothing wrong. Especially not having done anything wrong.
Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving. At least that’s how the saying goes. And it does. In my case – as I believe happens for many other 40 something Portuguese people – guilt keeps on giving alongside decades of a dictatorship past that left a dent in our history. “Prohibitions are historically produced, therefore there is a social and historical memory. Although we’ve had almost 50 years of democracy, the truth is we had other 50 under a dictator. Hence there is still historic memory, social memory, and many times family and personal memory of that period, and of a time filled with strong restraints linked to the authoritarian and fascist regime back then. This is transported into our mind matrixes and evaluation charts of our own actions, of life and the world. These restrictions of a political nature also marked our individual history and that can’t be erased in a day, right? They still do so, at least in some generations, the evaluation charts of our mind and action – whether through the rejection of those prohibitions and authoritarianisms or through complacency with that totalitarian logic.” Shouldn’t we be over that fear by now? Shouldn’t we have roared “enough” and face the bull the horns by now? Those who didn’t live the horror of years and years of dictatorship grew up, in a way, with the trauma of those whose mind asphyxiation had been overruled sometime before, by the 25th of April 1974. It is possible that the generation born immediately after the fall of the regime still feels the repercussions of that grey period of Portugal’s history? Yes. I see it in the way we react to when we are confronted by authority – the fear, the panic, the thought of them “finding the dead body in the trunk”, when there is no reason to be afraid, no motive to panic, and never, no dead body at all in the trunk. It’s an automatic reaction, that might be dissipating amongst younger people, but that remains, unchanged, in many of us. “And what if the police pull me over because I killed someone and don’t remember?” a friend joke around a few months ago, while discussing this topic. “It’s what I always think too”, I assured her.
All this has a reason, Bernardo Coelho guarantees. “When we’re confronted with military or institutional forces that represent the authority of the State, that is a type of interaction where there a power unbalance. Those institutions have particular powers invested in them by the State, for example, the exercise of violence, the restraint of our action – we might get arrested, detained, well… That puts us in a position of unbalance of power, there is an unequal logic system at play. In that context, what would condition our interactions? Precisely our internalized matrixes – if we’re pulled over on the road, what will condition our interaction with the police officers? On one hand, that evaluation matrix we have internalized will, the one that assesses our perception of reality and the world, the prohibitions at hand, and what [to us] that institution or authority means, conditions the way we will react. And we might feel guilty, fearful, because we internalized the unbalanced position, we as citizens occupy in the face of authority, that has been invested with particular powers, and therefore are capable of generating a sense of guilt, fear or eventually retaliation. Our reactions and feelings within this context will largely depend on our own disposition to think about the interaction we find ourselves in.” No one knows how they will behave at the moment when it hasn’t even occurred yet, but it’s likely that, in any given situation, guilt remains there, hidden in plain sight. “There may be people that reject that authority and might even have a challenging attitude, because that is the matrix they have incorporated, the one of rejecting authority. For example, people from our parents’ generation rejected pretty much everything and everyone that had a uniform, especially police ones, because they were widely associated with the violence and uncharacterized authority that was enforced at the time of the authoritarian fascist State. Thus, they rejected it and always acted in a quite challenging way when it came to interactions with the police. Other people might perceive that patented bias within those interactions and feel diminished in a way, hence why they feel guilt and fear because the power of police forces as an institution makes the situation, what might occur, into something unpredictable. […] and that unpredictability and power unbalance is what might cause us to feel frightened or guilty, because we can’t react in any other way, and we feel like we’re being manhandled, conditioned due to the unbalance of power those institutions represent – and the perception of that bias of power and the significance of those institutions have a lot to do with the way we socially and historically, and even biographically, incorporate things throughout our lives, of what we are or not allowed to do; the institutions issuing prohibitions and the people who are targeted by those same prohibitions; those who are in charge of verifying if the rules are being followed and those being watched. These are very different hierarchical positionings, and that is what lays underneath this particular context we are taking as an example, it is a situation of profound inequality.”
Book critic, essayist, professor – and for sure one of our era’s greatest intellectuals – George Steiner (1920-2020), published Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought in 2005. The book began with the following preface: “Schelling[a German philosopher], among others, attaches to human existence a fundamental, inescapable sadness. More particularly, this sadness provides the sombre ground on which consciousness and cognition are founded. This sombre ground must, indeed, be the basis of all perception, of every mental process.Thought is strictly inseparable from a ‘profound, indestructible melancholy.’ Current cosmology provides an analogy to Schelling's belief. It is that of ‘background noise’, of the elusive but inescapable cosmic wave-lengths which are the vestiges of the Big Bang, of the coming of being into being. In all thought, according to Schelling, this primal radiation and ‘dark matter’ entail a sadness, a heaviness of heart (Schwermut) which is also creative. Human existence, the life of the intellect, signifies an experience of this melancholy and the vital capacity to overcome it. We are, as it were, created ‘saddened’. In this notion there is, almost undoubtedly, the ‘background noise’ of the Biblical, of the causal relations between the illicit acquisition of knowledge, of analytic discrimination and the banishment of the human species from innocent felicity. A veil of sadness (tristitia) is cast over the passage, however positive, from homo to homo sapiens. Thought carries within itself a legacy of guilt.” Steiner, who knew a thing or two about acts of folly as risky to one’s mental sanity as thinking, examining and being aware of our actions, would come to the realization of why we complain about this unbearable anguish of being human. Guilt is the one to blame.
*Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Forbidden Issue, published april 2021.